The Star Ledger columnist agreed to stop by and answer a few questions about Mike Rice's first season on the banks.
On The Banks: Overall, what did you think of Mike Rice's first year on the job?
Steve Politi: It really is hard to think of it as anything other than a total success. His first priority was bringing an infusion of talent, and he did that with one of the best recruiting classes in the country. His next was establishing an identity for the program, and the results in the Big East showed that the Scarlet Knights would not be pushovers in the Big East. Add in a couple thrilling victories (and another potential one that the referees stole in the Big East tournament), and that’s a pretty good start.
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OTB: What do you think it takes to turn a basketball program around in the mammoth Big East?
SP: Clearly, there are levels for "turning a basketball program around." The first step for Rutgers is to get out of that bottom quarter, then to get into the postseason, then to crack the top half and go from there. To do that, you need to put a couple of solid recruiting classes together. That next step – from the middle to the top – is the hardest. Rutgers needs to start beating Villanova and Connecticut for the truly elite talent.
OTB: We know all about the recruiting class Rice and Rutgers have coming in next year. You've covered St. Anthony's a lot this season--and in the past. What can you say about both and Eli Carter? What can Rutgers fans look forward to?
SP: I think Mack could be the most important recruit in this class. When was the last time Rutgers had true point guard, one it could count on for four years? I see him playing 35 minutes a game from the moment he steps on campus. He’s a natural leader and a playmaker, and the ball will be in his hands. I’ve seen less of Carter, but he’s a combo guard could give Rutgers quality depth next year.
OTB: What does Rutgers basketball have to do to keep the positive momentum Rutgers basketball going in Rice's second season?
SP: I really think this is the harder season for Rice. He’ll have better talent, but higher expectations, and not many teams with seven freshmen do much in a conference like the Big East. The NIT would be a big step, a sign that the program is going in the right direction, but remember, this team is losing its best player in Jonathan Mitchell. Rice is going to have to do a lot of teaching next season. Rutgers fans have waited a long time, I hope they have another year of patience.
OTB: Is Mike Rice the man to finally get RU back into the NCAAs?
SP: Yes. He has created enough momentum with recruiting and built a solid enough base with this first class that a breakthrough player – one that turns a solid team into a good one – is bound to hop aboard. Plus, Rice has proven to be a pretty good game coach so far. Eleven of the 16 teams in Big East made the NCAAs last season. There’s no reason to think Rutgers can’t do it in the next 2-3 years.
OTB: Where do you think the local teams -- Rutgers, St. John's and Seton Hall -- will end up in the Big East next year, standings wise?
SP: I’m never very good with predictions. I thought the Giants would lose the Super Bowl to the Patriots by about 25 points, and we all know how that turned out. St. John’s is in a similar spot to Rutgers – very, very young – and Seton Hall is in complete rebuilding mode. I’ll go with, St. John ’s ninth, Rutgers 11th and Seton Hall 15th.